by Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder [This article first appeared in the Georgia Recorder, republished with permission]
September 15, 2023
This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.
For nearly two weeks, lawyers in a 19th floor courtroom in downtown Atlanta have examined Georgia’s shifting demographics, pored over socio-economic data and scrutinized the boundary lines of the state’s congressional and legislative districts.
And now the question of whether Georgia’s GOP-drawn political maps illegally dilute Black voting strength is in the hands of federal Judge Steve Jones, who told both sides they could expect a ruling by Thanksgiving.
If Jones sides with the groups and Black voters who have brought the legal challenges, the case could affect the balance of power on the national level – where Republicans hold a fragile majority in the U.S. House – and it could shrink the already tightening margins under the Gold Dome.
Georgia’s trial represents one of several pending challenges to congressional districts across the country.
The state’s attorneys have defended the maps drawn during a 2021 special session as the product of a political process that protected the GOP majority and prioritized incumbency.
Bryan Tyson, who is serving as special assistant attorney general, argued the plaintiffs’ mapmakers overly emphasized race in their alternative plans creating a new majority Black congressional district and multiple legislative districts.
He pointed to outcomes at the ballot box in recent years to show that Georgia’s system is equally open to all.
U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and President Joe Biden won statewide office, and U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, who is Black, was first elected in 2018 in a district that was majority white at the time.
McBath ran for another, more racially diverse district in the northern Atlanta suburbs when her old one was redrawn two years ago to favor a Republican candidate. Under the new map, Republicans now hold nine of Georgia’s 14 congressional seats, up from eight under the old map.
University of Georgia football legend Herschel Walker also won last year’s GOP primary in a landslide with the help of white Georgians, who largely tend to back Republicans. Walker ultimately lost to Warnock.
Tyson argued voters here are driven by “party conscious politics, not race conscious politics.” And he raised the question: If racial polarization was such a dominant factor, then how are Black-preferred candidates succeeding in Georgia?
“If you’re a good candidate in Georgia, you can get elected,” he said.
Abha Khanna, an attorney with the Elias Law Group, pushed back on that argument.
“The court should reject Georgia’s attempt to use gains made by the Black and minority community through sheer numbers to impose a ceiling on minority opportunity,” Khanna said.
The number of Black Georgians grew by about 484,000 people since 2010, with 33% of the state now identifying as Black. The number of white Georgians dropped by 52,000 over the last decade. Black voters in Georgia vote for Democrats at high rates.
In the state House, two new Black majority districts were created in 2021. No new majority Black Senate districts were created.
Khanna argued Georgia’s political maps shut Black voters out of halls of power.
“Minority vote dilution does not need to be accompanied by pitchforks and burning crosses and literacy tests for it to result in minority vote dilution,” she said.
‘The only path in the legal system for Georgians’
Attorneys made their closing arguments in the case Thursday afternoon, leaving the judge with reams of data and reports to sift through.
Jones, who was nominated by former President Barack Obama, said he would issue his ruling as soon as possible. He called it an important case that will “affect a lot of people’s lives.”
The trial centers on three cases that claim the state’s congressional and legislative district maps violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Civil rights and religious groups and individual Black voters filed the challenges shortly after the maps were first approved. But there are other redistricting challenges pending in Georgia.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a surprise ruling this summer that rejected Alabama’s congressional map and left Section 2 intact, preserving the law’s provision barring practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race. Alabama appealed that decision to the country’s high court this week.
“A big part of it is also telling the story of the impacted communities and the ways in which the current adopted maps will frustrate their ability to receive representation and have a voice in important affairs,” said Yurij Rudensky, an expert on redistricting with the Brennan Center for Justice.
University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock, who has written a book on redistricting, said he suspects the plaintiffs may prove successful. If so, state lawmakers will be sent back to the drawing board.
“The Legislature will be given the first crack at drawing a new plan. I would think the legislature, if it is given that opportunity, would not behave like the Alabama legislature,” Bullock said this week.
Bullock said he believes that exercise could yield a congressional district where adult Black Georgians make up at least the bulk of the population.
“Now, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee it’s going to elect a Black candidate, but what it does make likely is that the Black voters will be able to choose their candidate of choice. Again, that could be a Black Democrat, could be a white Democrat, but it’ll probably be a Democrat.
If state lawmakers find themselves back in another special session to draw maps, Ken Lawler says his group Fair Districts will be there with ideas. Volunteers with the group, which intervened in one of the three cases, have been in the courtroom to observe most of the 8-day proceeding.
“We believe that challenging unfair maps in court is a vital tool,” Lawler said this week. “We are glad that the U.S. Supreme Court has reaffirmed the right of voters of color to challenge maps that dilute their voices.
“This is the only path in the legal system for Georgians, since our state has almost no provisions in state law or constitution to challenge either partisan or racial gerrymandering,” he added.
Georgia Recorder Senior Reporter Stanley Dunlap contributed to this report.
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